Easier Said than Fed: Americans Want–and Have–Access to Fresh Produce, but Are They Actually Eating It?

This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

This week, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is hosting its annual Food and Community Conference, a three-day gathering of farmers, advocates, and experts to discuss the importance of promoting healthy lifestyles, in part by increasing community access to fresh food.

On Tuesday, the foundation released of a poll and trumpeted its results. Among other things (including that 75% of Americans support doubling the value of food stamps at farmers markets), the poll found that over 90% believe “equal” access for all Americans to fresh produce is either very or somewhat important.

It’s great that so many people think it’s important to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh, whole foods are better for us than processed ones, and if people think its important to have access to them, maybe that means we’re getting our dietary priorities back in order. A closer look at the actual poll questions and results, however, reveal that it may be focused on the wrong issue.

The poll contains numerous questions about access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Yes, 93% of respondents said they thought it was either very or somewhat important to make sure all Americans have equal access to fresh fruits and vegetables. But, according to the poll, an overwhelming majority of Americans already enjoy such access–in response to a question about that issue, 89% said that a place where they can buy fresh fruits and vegetables is either within walking distance or a short drive away from their home.

So if 93% understand the importance of eating fruits and vegetables, and 89% can already easily get them, what’s the problem? A better question–one that, unfortunately, the Kellogg Foundation poll did not ask–is whether Americans actually do access fresh fruits and vegetables when they have the chance.

Thanks to a number of other recent polls, we have an insight into what the answer might be, and it suggests there’s a big gap between access and consumption. A Gallup poll released last month found that, in 2011, 56% of Americans reported eating five or more servings of fresh fruits and vegetables–the minimum amount recommended by federal dietary guidelines and a significant portion of the nutrition community–at least four days a week.

And an even more granular study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2010 found that, in 2009, only 32.5% of U.S. adults consumed fruit two or more times a day and only 26.3% consumed vegetables three or more times per day.

These polls obviously lack scientific certainty–small variations in how the questions are phrased can skew results, and self-reporting is unreliable–and fruits and vegetables can be a regular and significant part of your diet even if you don’t eat five servings of them every day. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Americans are eating less fresh produce than they should, despite the fact that they know it’s important and can get it relatively easily.

Based on the knowledge that convenience is a bigger barrier than cost or access, this gap shouldn’t be all that surprising. But ordinary Americans aren’t the only ones guilty of buckling before the barrier of convenience.

Just as it’s easier for people to answer a poll question than to plan, shop for, and cook three healthy meals a day, it’s easier for advocates of fresh and healthy food to focus on access and call it a day than to change people’s actual eating habits.

This change won’t happen overnight, and access is a necessary prerequisite, so we should applaud the Kellogg Foundation and its partners for doing their part to raise awareness and keep the dialogue going. But we should also take these opportunities to ask the questions that really matter–and, more importantly, to encourage people to ask those questions of themselves.

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